Content: discussion of terminology for consensual practices, identities, and orientations regarding gender and sexuality. Specifically looking at criticisms of common terms and suggesting some solutions.
Do you ever look at variants of LGBT and think that’s not enough? And then get really overwhelmed with how many options there are?
Some people just resort to QUILTBAG and I’ve even been part of an organization that just called itself the Endless Acronym. When it comes to organizations, we may want to include allies too, but how do we define a group without excluding anyone who belongs, and without including people who may care about the cause, but who aren’t part of the identity group and don’t experience the related discrimination?
The reason why these terms are important is to be able to convey a group that is not the one in power. Privilege plays a part, but more importantly: what does society default to? The reason we are called on to “come out” is because until we do, there are certain expectations placed on us to conform to social norms. These change over time, and there are different kinds of coming out. However, I don’t want to conflate an experience such as disability and sexuality. Yes, I need to “come out” as both of these. I believe it makes sense to use this expression for both, because it implies an expectation of a norm, and the marginalization of my experience because it is assumed to not be the norm, and most importantly, a risk of incurring discrimination. Sometimes I even “come out” as my ethnicity, because it’s somewhat ambiguous when you look at me.
It is possible to appropriate this phrase, and so I certainly don’t want to hold up these criteria as the perfect means of avoiding that, but it means that we can acknowledge that there are some commonalities between oppression faced by different groups, without saying they are the same. This is important for so many reasons, not limited to avoiding erasure, and communicating in meaningful ways. I frequently use several of the terms I will discuss as a blanket term for people who are not straight, or not cisgender, but describing via “nots” is problematic for many reasons. Not in the least that it’s confusing as heck. Politically, it centers those who have privilege over the people who we are trying to talk about, which is dehumanizing. Practically, people fit into some and not all and in different ways and where would an intersex person who never objected to their birth assignment and maybe had a handy X gender passport fit anyways?
For instance, I personally dislike the inclusion of A to represent allies in the endless acronym used by many groups. Partly because it erases the Asexual and others, and partly because it implies an equal status.
Being an ally can be tough. Acknowledging that isn’t exclusive of the common sentiment that people shouldn’t get credit for exhibiting basic human decency. This should be our basic expectation even when it’s not the most common response. However, allyship requires active work, not simply passive identification, and that can have negative repercussions that deserve to be acknowledged. Allies, like many people dear to me, who endure harassment and violence, need to be supported as well. Yes, they need to be conscious of their privilege, but so do we all. I know allies who endured violence I never experienced because they stood up for people like me in places where I may not have been able to or too afraid to do so.
A very dear friend of mine, who is one of a few people who I know has not only supported me and all our friends unquestioningly, but is also one of the first people who didn’t treat me differently based on my gender presentation, recently refused to identify as an ally. Not because of a change of heart, but because without being actively involved in working towards this cause, they do not want to call themselves an ally.
Another case that is often contentious is whether polyamorous people should be included. Some kinksters (I won’t be attempting to describe this category, or its labels, but I can provide links to resources) also consider their sexual preferences to be a marginalized status. I agree that these are valid identities that incur discrimination, and therefore not subject to questioning by me or anyone else. I do feel uncomfortable, however, with labeling these as sexualities. With the disclaimer I don’t know everything and that I’m basing this off my reading of queer theory and personal lived experience as a vanilla poly person. (Seriously, I’m so vanilla I’m surprised I don’t cry black tears so please read educators in this field, there are many.)
I want to distinguish sexual preference from sexual orientation. Preferences are descriptive of desires for certain practices, where orientation is the capacity for feeling desires for descriptive groups. The former is inward facing, and based on desires for actions, “how I like it”. The latter is outward facing, based on desires for people, “who I can like”. For example, celibacy is a practice, and can be practiced by people of any orientation, whereas asexuality is an orientation that describes how people experience desire, and asexual people can have various practices, such as having or not having sex. Though many polyamorous people are queer, (and now I’m using another blanket term that also refers to the often academic framework of queer theory), many of them are not. This may affect how they experience prejudices. They may also feel that they can only be polyamorous, just as some people feel they can only be monogamous. However, since this is a practice, not an orientation, they can be either. They may not be happy as one or the other, but it’s not the same as trying to “fake” an orientation, because it is only embodied through behavior. While I can identify as someone who practices polyamory, or to be more specific consensual nonmonogamy, if I do so while in a monogamous committed relationship it definitionally suggests that I practice it when not in this relationship, and therefor either before or after, but not during. Unlike being a bisexual person where my capacity for desire for various people has not been changed by the way I am currently feeling it and how it has shaped my choices. My choices can, after all, include being rejected and refusing to act on desires because I am pinning for someone else. (hypothetically!) Cheating is not consensual and not a matter of orientation, but a breach of trust and commitment. I don’t think it’s necessary to explain why this can be an issue in any combination of cases and therefor entirely irrelevant.
Since I’m discussing language, I should note that some people use the term polysexual to describe an orientation towards polyamory. It is also sometimes used like multisexual, a non-monosexual identity that might fall under bisexuality as attraction to multiple genders, though potentially not all genders.
I mention all this because I want to specify what I am trying to communicate and why some people use various words, and the limitations of each based on common issues that concern our communities. (Because it sure as heck isn’t one homogenous group. Y’all got that qualifier right? I’m trying to include as many relevant approaches as possible).
Queer, while established in the field of theory and popular as a reclaimed and fairly neutral descriptor, still has a lot of negative connotations for people who experienced harassment. It can also be useful to distinguish as a theoretical approach and political identity. Not everyone who is marginalized wants to be political.
When trying to describe policy and social issues, we often use LGBT because it has been in the discourse for a while and includes major movements. However, it’s limited in its exclusion of people who don’t fall under those four umbrella categories. That is where some groups choose to expand the acronym. I can’t list all the different possible letters to include, because there are multitudes of combinations and I don’t want to leave out anything important, but a few that I see frequently or am often asked about include: Queer, Questioning, Intersex, Asexual (includes an entire spectrum). Lifestyle elements that are sometimes included, but as I discussed above I consider their own category: Kink, Polyamory, BDSM. Also I could write another entire article on that acronym alone and all the practices it incorporates, but I strongly recommend sources that are more knowledgeable on that topic.
A few alternative acronyms that use descriptors for the group I am trying to talk about include GSRM, MOGI, and MOGI. These have been critiqued by many people, but I have found that many of the arguments in circulation can effectively be applied to all four terms I will unpack here. People have different motivations to use different terms, and before I go into my recommendations I want to encourage being respectful of whatever labels people feel most comfortable with, and to let allies know that yes well informed people use all of these and have applied these arguments against the other terms that go against their own.
GSRM also GSM, gender and sexual minorities include romantic depending on which one you use and what you are trying to describe.
MOGAI AND MOGII: marginalized orientations gender alignments and intersex or marginalized orientations, gender identities, and intersex. The difference is whether to call gender identity or alignment. Some people just don’t feel alignment is correct.
[cw: this paragraph explains why pedophilia isn’t part of this because it’s inclusion is a common myth]
There’s a myth that one of these terms was invented by pedophiles to include them with queer people.
That the term was invented by a pedophile thing is a myth, but there is a movement towards stigmatizing and providing treatment for pedophiles, and distinguishing pedophilia as an illness from child abuse as a crime. The idea is in simple form, pedophiles are less likely to become aggressors if they have access to therapy and community. I don’t consider this particularly relevant, but it keeps being brought up. I am also not very knowledgeable on this topic, and part of that is because people don’t like to engage with it for perfectly good reasons.
Some people argue the word minority should only be used for racial marginalization.
Some people argue the word minority should not be used for racial marginalization because minority races are the numerical majority.
You’re including cis women! Because they experience marginalization within the patriarchy, women could theoretically be included in descriptors of marginalized gender categories. However, I’ve also heard this applied to GSRM. In the end, we must simply ask: are you going to acknowledge their privilege over trans* folk? And that some trans* people have some access to male privilege and that that doesn’t remove their marginalization as a result of being trans? These are two different power dynamics.
You’re including kinsters/poly people etc. There are also some people who want to include these as orientations. I have made my position clear, but if you believe that these groups are marginalized, then perhaps that is not the best word to use. I have also heard this argument against using the word minority.
It doesn’t explicitly include bi and trans* people, who already face erasure within LGBT communities. If you consider LGBT as umbrella categories, though primarily B and T, then theoretically no one is being left out in the rain. Though as both B,T and A(sexual) I like things that include a lot more. More could be said about how even communities that embrace part of the ideas I describe here may still support other norms, such as the monosexual bias in many LGBT communities.
It’s less well known! Well yea. But either you care and are willing to learn or you don’t and participating in social justice conversations shouldn’t hinge on knowing all the jargon because a) accessibility, b) intersectionality means in part never being able to know anything and respecting you have more to learn, and c) I’m totally going to write another article about this.
I said I’d propose a solution. However my solution is never to tell people how to identify. (Although as someone who identifies as polyamorous if people call that a sexuality it’s still going to make my skin crawl.) What I find beneficial is to remember that we use this jargon in order to communicate a common concept. Labels should be descriptive, not prespective. That means, we should use labels to share information, not to dictate how people should live their lives. If you are telling people how they should feel or identify, you’re part of the problem. If you want to communicate by trying to use some common understanding and do so mindfully of the limitations of language, maybe we can keep in mind that we are trying to work together and to give each other space for good intentions and qualifiers. Using any of the four terms I described in detail implies that the user has bothered to make a decision, so they have probably considered these problematic aspects. Even if they don’t think their own term carries them, and it could, they have decided that those are not ideas that they support. This is why when I say GSRM and someone else says MOGII, I think we are both trying to include qualifiers like, hey we’re not talking about cis women.
If you’re using these terms, hopefully you can understand things like intersectionality, nuance and the kyriarchy or are interested in learning! (hey, did you know I write a blog 😉
You may have noticed I also use trans at times despite supporting the use of trans* as an umbrella term for people who are not cis. I don’t want to go into great depth why I am currently using trans since it involves several instances of harassment that are still painful for me. However, I do want to explain the arguments around this term.
There are number of people who feel using the term trans* is transmysoginistic. Unfortunately, it’s based off the hopefully mistaken assumption that it was deliberately created to undermine transpeople, possibly transwomen in particular, who often face a great deal of stigma and discrimination and therefor have good reason to believe it will be used against them. However, it more likely comes from the use of asterisk to include all search terms including the prefix trans. That way, trans* includes transwomen and transmen, but also transgender and transsexual, without using either since all terms are used differently in different communities. It is also helpful for nonbinary or gender non conforming people who do not identify as cis but may feel reluctant to identify as transgender. They can be included in the trans* umbrella.
Another important, if slightly tangential point. Many activist communities use phrases such as “how do you identify?” when politely attempting to understand whether someone participates in a particular framework or belongs to an in-group. The phrasing is intended to avoid confrontation, and permit the recipient to express as much as is relevant, and also retain a degree of privacy for anything that isn’t. For example, yes I am a man who identifies as gay, please let me join this group exclusive to gay men (I happen to be trans AFAB but like heck am I telling you that before I can check out if your group is incredibly prejudices against trans people, because I am also a man. I just don’t feel like telling you I identify as trans because its not your business). Or: no, I don’t identify as a communist but I feel I am affected by these issues for various reasons (I don’t feel like telling this person my race or sexuality which might be what they are asking about) so I am interested in participating in this action. In any case, respecting a person’s identity means using whatever they tell you to use and not making assumptions. It’s also important to consider when you are interacting with a person that you are not interacting with their identity. If you are talking about your friend’s new haircut, and how short they cut it, it’s not relevant to say they identify as a woman. You just say “my friend got a haircut. This woman has great taste in short styles.” If you wouldn’t say it for a cis person, don’t say it for a trans person. If you are talking about the new head of the gay rights coalition and want to express that you respect this woman a lot and are glad they chose someone who talks about identifying as a transwoman to lead the group, say “I really like this woman’s policies, and I’m glad we finally have someone who identifies as a transwoman leading our group!”
I use these examples to make an important point. Identifiers are often used as descriptions of who a person is. This can mean these words sum up who they are intrinsically, it can mean the group with which they feel describes them politically or socially, for only two variations of many. For example, my gender is nonbinary or agender. That is, I am not a man or woman and these words describe that. That’s who and what I am. I also describe myself as genderqueer, which is part of my identity, but also a descriptor that helps me communicate I queer gender. I say I am all 3 of these things, but mostly only say I identify as genderqueer.